‘Punch and Judy’ is a popular puppet show that has been performed since the 1600s. It has no fixed plot, and every puppeteer is partly free to tell their own story with it. There are two common aspects: the show follows Mr. Punch and his wife Judy, and Mr. Punch usually ends up getting into a confrontation and hitting someone with his stick.
Judy and Punch flips the names of the couple around in its title, raising questions about the power of language. It exists on two levels-Punch and Judy are both the puppeteers and the puppets they control. The link between the two is solidified when Mr. Punch uses a stick just like his puppet in a scary, horrifying way. The film explores the active nature of stories and the way they inspire and connect to real examples of violence, especially domestic violence.
The film’s set and production design are both intriguing and self-defeating. Judy and Punch is set in Seaside, a village nowhere near the sea. Though IMDb says Seaside is in 17th century England, it seems to be a satirical mix of all sorts of places jumbled together, suggesting the audience focus on the ideas of the film instead of the place. The soundtrack shifts through music from around the world, the wood floor under its nooses looks like it’s from a modernist apartment in a business district, and the village looks like it’s from a live-action Disney remake of an old English fairy tale.
The film seems intentionally odd. It explores how women in Seaside were branded witches for doing absolutely everything and how men used that to their violent advantage. The film seems to fight against that male influence, allowing everything about it to be weird and wonderful. However, its tone is too imbalanced. As a revolutionary statement against male violence towards women, it is bold and liberating. As a film, it is disengaging because it doesn’t flow well. I know that it can be a frustrating experience to find something doesn’t work in an artistic medium even though its ideas seem utterly justified, and there is often no clear answer as to why something doesn’t translate to film. What I can say is that even surrealist paintings or absurdist theatre, despite their jumbled images, feel real to their audience because they connect to an emotion inside them. This film’s atmospheres are so arbitrary they lose the spark of emotional immediacy.
Even the actors seem confused about what they are trying to do here. Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman as Judy and Punch have so much happening on their faces that it’s hard to pick out what they’re trying to convey. Both they and the film are highly ambitious in the ideas that they are trying to explore but they haven’t adequately focused on anything.
Judy and Punch is well-meaning but tries to do so much that none of its numerous ideas are powerfully expressed. I would, however, recommend it for the inkling of freedom it gives you afterwards.
Judy and Punch opens in UK cinemas on 22 November 2019. Reviewed at the Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh.